Grade: C-
Entire family: No (13 and older)
2018, 80 min., Color
Horror
RLJE Films
Unrated (would be PG-13)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

This Christmas horror anthology touts Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat) and Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls) as headliners of an ensemble cast that’s composed of unfamiliar faces except for Maria Olsen, whom movie-lovers may recognize from her appearances in Paranormal Activity 3, Reunion, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

People wanting to see Wu and Kite will have to be patient, though, because their sketch is the last of five in All the Creatures Were Stirring. Connecting them is the clever device of a man and woman on what appears to be a first date (“Is this a date? Should I even ask that?”) who decide to ease the tension by going into a small theater to take in a live show on Christmas Eve. Onstage are three performers who, it’s implied, act out each of the sketches that are introduced by a stone-faced director (Olsen) whose hair and attire can best be described as clown-like. The exaggerated seriousness and the performances all scream “hipster,” but instead of watching the actors do their thing, once their performance begins the camera fades them out and a filmed segment featuring totally different actors fades in.

There’s an admirable self-consciousness at work here, because after watching the first sketch—“The Gift”—the man tries to stifle his laughter, while the woman says, “What the hell was that?” He responds, still trying to control himself, “I have no idea.” There’s also playful confirmation that the material might not exactly be high drama because a few more people in an already small audience leave the theater after each sketch, until there’s just three left in the audience at the end: the awkward daters and a man who keeps staring at them.

But the sketches themselves are a mixed bag. Not surprisingly, the one with Wu and Kite is the best of the bunch, while others showed some promise and still others were dull, strained, or lacking in something—originality, quality of acting, etc.

The Gift

An office Christmas party turns into a game of escape room survival when the boss leaves the room to “take a call” and they all begin to open gifts laid out on a conference table in front of them. Some of those gifts turn out to be deadly. Call it a wrapped version of Russian roulette, where, despite a disappointing ending, there’s enough shock value to make you think that maybe the rest of these short films will be promising.

The Van

Suspend, if you will, all logic as we listen to a department store announcement that the store is closing and watch a man carrying bundles of presents to his car . . . in a parking lot that’s completely dark and empty. Deserted. Desolate. And when he gets out of the car to find out why there’s a problem, his car locks him out. That’s right. Call it Christine’s Cousin. And he sees nothing creepy at all about walking up to the only other vehicle he notices on the far edge of the lot, though it’s completely dark inside. Then again, characters in horror movies always do dumb stuff, like walking into houses that look haunted or insisting on checking out dark basements or other scary places. Two women are inside the van, and yes, they’re two creepy women. Stranded in a parking lot is no way to spend Christmas Eve . . . or the night before your birthday. Something’s going to happen with the van, of course, but we don’t know what. Here too, you think, well, this short sketch wasn’t horrible, but it also wasn’t compelling because the horror elements seemed strained.

Donations

The least original of the sketches features a bah-humbug recluse who refuses a neighbor who knocks on his door Christmas Eve to ask for a donation for a local charity. “What’s happening? Oh my god! The door won’t stop closing! It’s like it has a mind of its own!” he says as he slowly closes the door in the man’s face. That’s funny, and we have high hopes for a clever sketch. Then we see him watching TV and he gets instructions from pop-ups that appear on a television show he’s watching, and you think, again, this might be promising. But then the TV show he’s watching is about a visitation from three ghosts, and you think, great . . . another version of A Christmas Carol. And it is. Unfortunately, once that’s established, nothing new or clever really happens, and you’re left wanting more.

Trouble

The most absurd sketch in the group involves a man who’s driving on a dark and (of course) deserted country road, and he’s got a camera and a folder with a woman’s name on it. Is he a P.I.? Is he on a job? Never mind. He hits a deer with his car. And oh, the horror . . . because it’s not a good idea to kill a reindeer so close to Christmas. Call it, “I Know What You Did Last Christmas”—another derivative entry that may or may not be intentionally comic.

End Game
Finally we get to the sketch most people who bought this DVD will be waiting for: a superb one that features Wu and Kite as pals, one of whom insists on spending Christmas with the other so both of them don’t have to be alone. In terms of its subject matter and tone, this accomplished sketch playfully riffs off of the old Twilight Zone stories, with the kind of sassy self-referentiality that characterizes all smart satires. There’s also inventive use of color in this story about people who find themselves trapped in a Christmas version of Groundhog Day. If the other sketches had the same conceptual strength and quality of writing, acting, and special effects, this collection would be much stronger than it is. Older children wanting a horror fix will probably be put off by a framework they’ll consider pretentious and sketches that, for the most part, aren’t accomplished enough.

Language: At least one f-bomb plus a lot of lesser swearwords

Sex: Nothing here

Violence: There’s quite a bit of bloody and startling violence; someone gets shot in the head, monsters attack, blood spatters . . . .

Adult situations: Nothing besides what’s already been mentioned

Takeaway: Is the Wu/Kite sketch worth buying this DVD—that’s really what you need to ask yourself, though the fact that it’s bargain priced ($9.96) makes the call a little easier

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